This summer we spent a week at Lake Pend Oreille in northern Idaho—the alleged home of many far-right white nationalist militants. During a visit to the Walmart Supercenter in nearby Hayden, I saw a man wearing a t-shirt with the following printed declaration: “Ask me to wear a mask and I’ll beat your M**F** face in.”
If the sentiments on his shirt were an accurate reading of his state-of-mind, this gentleman was apparently prepared for violence in support of his cause.
As the political radicalization of rank and file Americans expands exponentially, the plot to kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Witmer and trigger a nationwide race war comes as depressing, but not necessarily surprising, news. We gasped at the plot only because of the chutzpah of the plotters, not at what they planned to achieve. These days, talk of triggering race wars is just more yada yada yada.
When President Trump was asked during what passed for a presidential debate if he condemned far right extremists, his weak-kneed “stand down and stand by” remark was the moral equivalent of a wink-wink approval.
Meanwhile the president has been much less muddied in his response to the anarchists of the far left. He has not, for example, encouraged those embracing the antifa philosophy to “stand by.” He says the federal government will declare such supporters to be a terrorist organization, subject to the full fury of the Feds.
A few days later, after criticism, he added that, yes, he’ll also declare the KKK to be a terrorist organization as well. As for the Wolverine Militia and the Proud Boys, no presidential decision has yet been made. I guess we’re standing by.
So here’s my point. We tend to see political support as a long, straight line. Think of a yard stick. In the middle, at the 18-inch mark, are the centrists, the people who see signs of intelligent life—or perhaps merely the same level of stupidity—in both Republicans and Democrats, and swing back and forth based on the specific candidate or policy.
Move several inches to the right and you have the hardcore Republicans. Several inches to the left of center, you have the hardcore Democrats. My party, right or wrong, and all that.
But keep going to the ends of the yard stick, both left and right. There at each end you have the extremists, the plotters who consider violence and upheaval as an acceptable means to achieve their ends.
Well, here’s a different way to look at all this. That yardstick I mentioned? It’s not a yardstick. It’s a circle.
At the top of the circle, we’ll call it 12 o’clock, are the centrists. The ones with loyalty to issues and ideas, not parties.
At 3:00, we find the Republican purists, those fully committed to the rightness (no pun intended) of their cause. It’s the same at 9:00 for the Democrats. For such people, the center holds no appeal.
But what about the extremists? They’re down at the bottom of the circle, at 6:00, all piled together, because they have far more in common with each other than most of us want to believe.
Sure, their political views are different. But at some point all of them, from the Wolverine Militia to the antifa street rioters, crossed a line, and, to be clear, both groups crossed the same line. Somehow they and all their anarchist fellow-travelers became convinced that public debate and the ballot box are insufficient as a means for achieving social change, and that the perfect rightness of their individual utopian causes—from racial purity to socialist parity—justify violence to achieve what they see their self-declared righteous ends.
It’s scary, but it’s human, and it’s not going away. Those who follow rigid beliefs with blind faith often end up in dark places, from the Southern lynch mobs to pogroms to Inquisitions to McCarthyism to Mountain Meadows. To true believers, such extremism is only logical. To the rest of us, it’s a warning of what happens as more and more of us flee to the distant point on the circle where left and right meet to contemplate their respective anarchies.
Chris Huston is an author and award-winning columnist living in the Magic Valley. Connect with Chris on Facebook and Instagram at Chris Huston-Finding My Way and at chrishustonauthor.com.
Catch the latest in Opinion
Get opinion pieces, letters and editorials sent directly to your inbox weekly!